Essay by Jonathan Higgins of Manneken Press: print publisher, master printer, artist, and photogravure practitioner.
Stieglitz, Strand, Steichen, Curtis – photogravure is inextricably linked to the history of fine art photography. But many of the qualities that drew artists to this medium in the past are still prized by contemporary artists.
In a nutshell, photogravure print is an intaglio printmaking process wherein a light-sensitive gelatin tissue, which has been exposed to a film positive, is adhered to a copper plate and then etched. When printed it results in a high quality intaglio print that can reproduce the detail and continuous tones of a photograph.
Photographic reproduction in lithography, silkscreen, photo-etching on metal and photo-polymer techniques rely on a half-tone screen to break the image up into dots of white or black that blend visually to simulate a photographic appearance.
Photogravure is unique in that it is considered to be truly photographic; i.e. the photographic image is realized in continuous tones. The photogravure plate is printed onto paper from the etched copper plate that has been inked and wiped as a regular intaglio plate, producing a print that is a hybrid of photography and printmaking.
Developed in the 1870’s, photogravure became one of the first widely used techniques for reproducing photographic imagery. Photographers of the Photo-Secession and Pictorialist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries prized photogravure for its ability to render a wide tonal range, soft tones and details. Later, as photographers began to utilize high quality silver gelatin papers to print their images, the tricky and laborious process of making photogravures gradually fell into disuse. However, the rise of digital photography has stimulated renewed interest in some of the earlier analog techniques, and photogravure has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years.
Even so, contemporary printshops producing photogravures are few, and their output is small, while digital photography continues to dominate the market.
Demand for specialized materials, such as the gelatin tissue, films and chemistry required for this relatively obscure technique is low, resulting in scarce or discontinued products. Fortunately, photogravure practitioners can now utilize inkjet printers to produce films that once would have been made in the darkroom on silver gelatin film, opening the possibility for artists to use digital imagery in this analog process, while creating new relevance for a 19th Century technique in the 21st Century.
Direct gravure is a technique that utilizes the photogravure process to make plates directly from an artist’s drawing or other non-photographic source. The prints by Peter Feldstein and Brian Cypher are examples of direct gravure.